Chris Christie's Use of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey's Gubernatorial Elections

By Celeste R. Aguzino
2014, Vol. 6 No. 12 | pg. 1/4 |

“I didn't get sent here to be elected Prom King.” Chris Christie peppered this signature mantra in many of his 2009 stump speeches, emphasizing that principle, not popularity, would help him lead New Jersey. These kinds of sweeping, yet pragmatic statements acted as one crux in Christie’s campaign and bolstered his reputation as a dynamic, determined problem solver who trivialized party lines.

Christie had developed and honed these skills while serving as U.S. Attorney for the State of New Jersey. Prior to his appointment, Christie was a lawyer and for a brief time, a lobbyist. He worked to deregulate state utilities and prevent security fraud. As a U.S. Attorney from 2002 to 2009, Christie was noted for exposing public cases. His administration notably found Republican Essex County Executive James W. Treffinger and Democratic State Senator Wayne R. Bryant guilty of bribery and fraud.1 His aggressive, dogged approach to state corruption established his credibility and earned the respect of New Jersey residents. Chris Christie resigned his post as U.S. Attorney in October 2009 with the intention of unseating Democratic Governor Jon Corzine.2

New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial race was highly contested, seen through week-by-week percentage marking periods throughout the election season. The state was politically divisive, but Christie won 48.46% of the vote, in comparison in Corzine with 44.88%.3

Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 Category 3 storm that plowed through New Jersey and ranked the second costliest in US history, occurred between Christie’s first and second gubernatorial campaigns. The governor received both praise and disapproval for his response to the state crisis. Christie gained considerable media attention when he met President Obama to survey the damage and comfort survivors, which both fostered feelings of bipartisanship.

Gov. Chris Christie meets with county officials in Cape May, NJ after Hurricane Sandy

Gov. Chris Christie meets with county officials in Cape May, NJ on October 30th, 2012, after Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal communities. Photo: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen.

The governor also admonished the GOP for refusing to vote for Sandy aid unless pork barrel legislation was included.4 Conservative think tank analysts criticized Christie’s respose after Sandy and pointed to New Jersey’s lack of emergency planning and dependence on federal disaster aid as a larger issue of poor state leadership.5

Christie’s campaign used Hurricane Sandy, which most severely affected New Jersey, to leverage his public image. In 2012, the Christie campaign would pursue completely different strategies and campaign phases to reach new parts of the electorate, such as young families, Korean-Americans, and Hispanics.

The sharpest politicians, whether consciously or not, oscillate between varying moral foundations and leadership styles. They understand that ever-changing circumstances in the political sphere call for different means of engaging and maintaining their constituents.

Christie emerged as a clear victor and defeated challenger Barbara Buono with 60.4% of the vote.6 Christie’s leadership, therefore, suggests that the governor’s bipartisan appeals have minimized party politics. Understanding if and how the superstorm led Christie to change his political strategy is important to understanding the evolution of his moral foundations and leadership style.

Theoretical Review

Relevant previous work in this discipline can be divided into three distinct groups: politics and rhetoric, leadership, and the differences between liberals and conservatives.

In the field of political rhetoric, arguments have been made to consider the importance of a candidate’s strengths when choosing a campaign theme and emphasized issues.7 Candidates additionally need to determine their targeted group in the electorate, although they should aim to appeal to the widest, most diverse support base as possible. Some media experts assert that natural disaster and crisis situations serve as prime examples to evaluate leaders’ political ideology and public image. Studies have found that in crisis, such as Hurricane Katrina, the media adopts a position to blame and criticize authority figures.8

In addition, the media, and arguably similar, political campaigns, accordingly make rhetorical decisions about coverage. This study concludes that media portrayals can affect how authorities react to initial crisis. For example, Hurricane Sandy impacted the 2008 campaign in swing states, but the explanation is unclear. While political leaders are not always responsible for crisis, they are expected to respond quickly and appropriately, which gives citizens an opportunity to reflect on their leaders’ competency.9

In previous arguments about city and state authority, authors conclude that mayoral visibility, especially in noncontroversial events, is critical to developing a positive public image.10 Crisis can impact one’s political agenda, depending on their response to the situation. Effective leaders, such as Boston mayor Kevin White in 1968, turned a crisis scenario into an administrative success.

Helping citizens after a disaster or crisis situation makes governmental systems more accessible to thousands of citizens. How a leader responds can either create a fresh image of community involvement and municipal responsiveness11 or decrease leaders’ legitimacy.12

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, conservative policy experts made recommendations for disaster and leadership, emphasizing the importance of state defense. Recently, policy experts have made strong appeals to give states more responsibility in crisis management. Without stronger state leadership, conservatives propose that disaster preparedness will be deemphasized.13

The difference in liberals and conservatives’ political ideologies has been studied at length, with some policy experts arguing that political distinctions can, depending on the issues, lead to more effective policies. When both parties’ initiatives are consistent and based on a clear demarcation of the policy’s effect, the can positively contribute to policy development.14

Methodology and Findings

This study is based on data collected from Governor Chris Christie’s 2009 and 2013 campaign advertisements and public speeches, spanning from October 17th, 2009 to November 5th, 2013, when the last electoral results were determined. The television advertisements and taped speeches were chosen as clear, accessible examples of political rhetoric. The clips, in addition to Christie’s public speeches, were used to compare how the campaign planned and executed their strategy in the two election seasons. Gubernatorial debates were initially collected and watched, but the researcher found that the clips presented an unintentional basis.

Christie’s shift in moral foundations and leadership style would have to be gauged against his opponents, which would be difficult to objectively compare. Therefore, clips of the 2009 and 2013 debates have been omitted from this study. Exhibits were retrieved from either C-SPAN or YouTube archives, or the Vanderbilt University Video Library database. A few of the 2009 taped speeches were from New Jersey newspaper websites. Because the 2009 campaign was significantly less publicized outside of New Jersey, the number of clips and exhibits found was substantially less than the 2013 election season. Based on these parameters, a total of 15 television advertisements and 16 speeches were selected for analysis.

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